Spring 2013 Review: The Americans

1 Mar

Johnny and Linda American

The Americans is about a couple of Soviet sleeper agents living in America, posing as a typically American family during the late cold war period.  I’ll get to more about it, I promise, but follow me for a minute as I take a diversion onto a more general point about the Cold War in pop culture, and then back to The Americans particularly.

I grew up too late to really experience the cold war.  I don’t really remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even if I did know it at the time, I certainly didn’t understand what it meant.  The Cold War itself doesn’t seem like a great time in which to live, but for movies and television it seems like a constantly underused time period, especially in terms of the use of Soviet antagonists.  While World War II Nazis are crazy super evil and immediate, reflecting the fact that World War II was a concentrated war centered on armed conflict, Cold War Soviets, at least post-Stalin, are less here and now evil and more mysteriously and michievously villainous.  Everyone knew the Nazis wanted to basically take over the world and kill all the Jews and Russians and whatever other ethnic groups, but no one exactly knew what the Soviets wanted or what they were willing to do to get it.  The beauty of the Cold War from a broad literary perspective is that neither side knew exactly what the other was thinking, and at anytime, one misplaced step could set off a chain reaction to mutual destruction.  And while, unlike in the third easily literarily interpretable international relations event of the 20th century, the Vietnam War, it’s pretty clear we’re the good guys in the Cold War, it’s not exactly clear how bad the other guys are (No one seems to do World War I or Korean War movies in America, aside from M*A*S*H; World War I just doesn’t have the same place in the American psyche as it does in the European, and no one knows anything anymore about the Korean War).

Thus, while World War II works best as a setting for sweeping large-scale action like in Saving Private Ryan or clear cut good vs. evil revenge like Inglorious Bastards, the Cold War plays best to sneaky subterfuge and taut suspense.  There’s a number of already-on-the-way-to-destruction movies like  Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe, but in terms of pre-nuclear destruction, The Hunt for Red October is one of the best examples of movies that follows these themes.

So, back to The Americans.  As per that deviation, The Americans fits that Cold War narrative to a T.  The series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the Soviet sleeper agents who have been in the US for a decade and a half at the start of the show, set in  1981.  Flashbacks tell us that they were chosen two decades ago to be married and infiltrate the US, and in the present day, they’ve got two kids who know nothing about their true professions.  They’ve started to become Americanized in their home lives while constantly executing missions for their Soviet overlords.  We learn in the first episode that Rhys’ Phillip is more loyal to his wife than to his country, while Russell’s Elizabeth would die before defecting.  It’s unclear whether that dynamic will reappear as a potential stress on the couple in later episodes, but it certainly seems possible.  In the pilot we also see their difficulties in maintaining a normal family life and carrying out these missions, as they get by a couple of very close scrapes in the first hour alone, and a Soviet superior tells Elizabeth it’s only going to get harder.

Across the street, new neighbor FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) moves in, completely coincidentally, but Beeman, who works in the counter intelligence department and recently relocated to Washington DC after spending three years undercover, immediately suspects something is off about Elizabeth and Phillip.  Initially, I thought the FBI was going to look pretty naive and incompetent in the show, and Beeman in particular seems bright eyed and bushy tailed, and when he introduces himself to Elizabeth and Phillip straight out as a FBI agent, it seems as if they can spy circles around this guy.  However, smartly, it seems like the FBI in general, and Beeman in particular, are more capable than we think and the episode ends with the FBI declaring war on these sleeper agents.  Shows and movies are almost always better with well-matched adversaries, rather than one  competent side and one incompetent.  Whether we end up rooting for the KGB agents or the FBI, the show has more long term potential if both are relatively capable.

The Americans looks like it will have all the hallmarks of Cold War fiction; simmering tension with punctuated burst of activity, and constant paranoia on either side; the KGB agents that they’re about to get caught at any time, and the FBI agents that KGB sleeper agents could be anyone and anywhere.  The show also reminds me of Breaking Bad in the sense that our primary protagonists are the ostensible villains (Walt, the KGB agents), while our secondary protagonists are the ostensible good guys (Hank, FBI agent Stan).  It’s unclear as of yet exactly how likeable or unlikeable the KGB agents will be as characters, and how they’ll manage to make the FBI-is-or-is-not-onto-them plot keep moving without stalling or engendering the concept of the show, but there are certainly enough possibilities out there to be worthy of seeing where the creators go with it.

It’s also worth noting that there is already some great period music, and hopefully will be more of it.  In particular, the show opened with Quarterflash’s Harden by Heart, which was already a great sign for my liking it.

Will I watch it again?  Yes. It wasn’t amazing or mind blowing (see: Homeland’s premiere) but it was definitely good enough to come back to.  Also, it’s worth noting that FX is creating itself quite a brand; recent solid-or-better dramas include this, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy.

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